THIS is one of those books that is very timely in the current context of this pandemic, though the author didn’t set out that it should be so.
Mann’s book is a slim volume of ten fairly short chapters (the final chapter and postscript are written in the light of the pandemic). None the less, it takes us into a wide-ranging terrain, where she invites us to consider from different perspectives things that we thought we knew well: our bodies, our relationships, and our understanding of God. I found myself being both discomforted and comforted (strengthened), challenged and inspired along the way, and especially through Mann’s writing. It displays the wide range of her academic, theological, literary, and artistic sources, and the depth of her learning, which she wears lightly.
As Mann indicates, this is a book about bodies, particularly “bodies under pressure”. These are bodies that we inhabit in their fragility and precariousness, and that experience themselves in the vulnerabilities of relationship with others. That life is a precarious and fragile business has been underscored for us all, individually and communally, through the experience of the pandemic: how quickly life can unravel and how hollow are our illusions of control.
Mann writes with eloquence and passion of the need for courage and openness to see our bodily and lived experience as a place where we encounter God, who entered into the precariousness of bodily existence and relationship in the person of Jesus Christ, and who knows what it is to have a body that is wounded, and the vulnerability of being in the hands of others.
For Mann, this is the only kind of understanding of God which can meet us in the realities of wounding and grief in our bodies, not just our minds. Recent research on neuroscience in trauma studies underscores the importance of listening to and befriending the body, where trauma memory is stored and healing begins. This underscores the approach that Mann advocates: that we are embodied people, who are made for relationship.
I was reminded, when I reached the last chapter and postscript, of Mann’s stated intention at the outset that the book be an exploration of grief: “Grief at its broadest is about bodies encountering the facts of loss, limit and fragility.” We are born into grief, she argues, and we need to encounter loss and grief to learn how to live. After the first chapter, however, I realised that I had lost sight of grief as a unifying theme. This, perhaps, suggests that it is used more as a jumping-off point or a wrapping-around of what most of the book focuses on: “precarity”.
This is not a book for the squeamish. Mann does not shy away from sharing her own lived experience of woundings to the body, the realities of grief, and the precariousness of life; but she doesn’t leave us bogged down in this. Rather, it gives authenticity to her reflections and invites, sometimes provokes, readers to be just as real about their own bodies and experience and to find them as “utterly known by the divine” and the site of grace and hope.
The Revd Hilary Ison is a Reflective Practice Facilitator and member of the research team with tragedyandcongregations.org.uk.
Love’s Mysteries: The body, grief, precariousness and God
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.39